Feeling Isolated and Alone Does Not Mean that Something's Wrong with Us. It May Mean Just the Opposite.
The Fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Lætare Sunday.
Lessons from the primary dominica, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• I Samuel 16: 1, 6-7, 10-13.
• Psalm 23.
• Ephesians 5: 8-14.
• John 9: 1-41.
[or, John 9: 1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38.]
Lessons from the dominica, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Galatians 4: 22-31.
• [Gradual] Psalm 121: 1, 7.
• [Tract] Psalm 124: 1-2.
• John 6: 1-15.
The Fourth Sunday of the Great Fast; the Otdanije (Leave-Taking) of the Annunciation; and, the Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel.*
Lessons from the triodion, according to the Ruthenian recension of the Byzantine Rite:
• Hebrews 6: 13-20.
• Mark 9: 17-31.
9:15 AM 3/26/2017 —
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy, For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not pass over it, and fools shall not err therein (Isaiah 35: 5-8 RSV).
It’s from the Prophecy of Isaiah; and, like most of the books of the prophets in the Old Testament, it’s about two-thirds poetry; and, like most poetry, it can be very difficult to comprehend. But this one is fairly easy: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped….” He’s prophesying about the coming of the Messiah. And that’s why Isaiah's prophesy is in the Bible: the eyes of the blind were opened, as we just read.
We mentioned this man, you'll recall, not long ago in the context of the apostles asking our Lord whose sin was responsible for his condition, and we explained why they asked that question, so we're not going to revisit that topic. The question I pose to you today is: what is the difference between going blind and being born blind? A person who goes blind retains mental images of things he once saw; and, while those images fade and become distorted over time, he still retains enough to help him visualize whatever may be described to him. But the person born blind has no such memories. You can describe something to him; but, depending on what it is, he may or may not be able to form a mental picture. The example I like to give is that of color. Now, here’s something that changes the appearance of a thing, but it’s texture and shape remain the same. A person who has gone blind knows what you’re talking about when you say that something is red or green or blue; but what goes through the mind of the person born blind when you tell him that the sky is blue and the grass is green, or that the moon tonight is a beautiful amber? How does he have any idea what you’re talking about?
Professor Alice Von Hildebrand, in her book Philosophy of Religion, which I read in the seminary four hundred years ago, says that this is exactly what happens when you try to explain faith to someone who doesn’t believe: you’re speaking a language he doesn’t understand. And I think we often have that same feeling today when we watch or read the news, and the journalist is talking or writing about our Catholic religion or the Pope or anything to do with the Church, and using the vocabulary of politics or sociology because he doesn’t know the language of faith. It sounds strange to our ears and can make us feel isolated, almost as if we are sighted people who have wandered into the kingdom of the blind, where no one can understand what we’re trying to tell them.
Of course, for Saint John, who gives us this account from our Lord’s life in his Gospel, there is a deeply symbolic meaning to our Lord’s encounter with the man born blind. Remember that, in the very beginning of his Gospel, John speaks of man walking in darkness, being unable to see the light even though it is all around him. He describes Jesus as “The true light that enlightens every man…” (John 1: 9); and, this encounter between Jesus and this blind man—which is a real one—took on a deep significance for him, which he tries to pass on to us. Darkness, of course, is sin; darkness from birth is Original Sin; and it is not a coincidence that the man’s sight is restored by washing his eyes with water at the command of our Lord, since it is water which is used to wash away Original Sin in baptism.
And the sequence of events after the man receives his sight is illustrative of the life of every serious Christian. One would think that blindness would tend to isolate someone from society; but, the man here is actually isolated by his sight, by those who do not understand the gift he’s received. He is, in fact, pursued by them as if his new-found sight somehow threatens them. He points out to them their hypocrisy, but this only makes them angrier; so, he is expelled from the synagogue and told he is a sinner. Hearing about this, our Lord tracks him down, where He then asks the quintessential question—the same question He asked the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well in last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, and the paralyzed man we will read about this coming Tuesday: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Do you believe in the Messiah? In all three cases, they ask Him, “Who is he, Lord?” and in all three cases Jesus gives the same answer: “I who speak to you am He.”
That statement, of course, has to be either accepted or rejected; and, in this sense, we can see how the Church on earth is the paralytic, is the Samaritan woman, is especially the man born blind. To each of these people Jesus claims to be God, and demonstrates the fact; and, the Catholic Church is the sole entity on earth that claims to speak for Him and dispense his Grace. This angers people, not only today, but in all times down through the centuries. People are willing to tolerate God and those who believe in Him if they keep Him in the closet labeled “Personal Idiosyncrasies”; but, when such people let God out of the closet and allow Him to influence how they live their lives, how they raise their children, how they conduct their personal and public affairs, how they vote, then people are not so tolerant. And as we struggle each day to live lives motivated by faith in a faithless time, it’s very easy for us to feel alone and isolated, and wonder if there might be something wrong with us.
The reality is that we’re the only healthy ones around; it’s society that’s gone blind; and, when that blindness has become the norm, then the only person who can see becomes the odd man out, and the pressure to conform in order to get along becomes almost too great to bear. One remembers the words that the playwright Robert Bolt put into the mouth of Saint Thomas More, when he was asked, “Can’t you come along with us for the sake of fellowship?” and More replied, “When you go to heaven for doing your conscience and I go to hell for not doing mine, will you come along with me for the sake of fellowship?”
This Fourth Sunday of Lent is the one we often call by its Latin name: Lætare Sunday. The title comes from the first word of its Entrance Antiphon, which is also from the Prophet Isaiah: Lætáre, Ierúsalem: et convéntum fácite, omnes qui dilígitis eam…: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together, all you who love her: rejoice with joy, you who have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation” (66: 10-11).** It's tenor is slightly more joyful than the other days of Lent: Rose colored vestments replace the familiar purple, and we are reminded that the fasting and penance of this season will soon be replaced by the rejoicing of Easter. But, depending on our circumstances, we may find that a hard sell, as we continue to struggle in that spiritual combat that is Christian living day by day. It's a reminder, really, of the need we all have to cultivate that all-elusive virtue of Hope, without which we could never survive the isolation of trying to live lives of virtue in a world that views virtue as weakness.
In that sense, every one of us is the man born blind: you would think he would have been isolated by his blindness than by anything else; but, in actuality, he was more isolated by his sight, after he received it. He was tolerable in the synagogue so long as he remained blind and the status quo remain unchallenged. Once his eyes were opened, he was able to see the truth: that what was happening in the synagogue was useless, that Jesus is God, and the synagogue does not serve Him. And so it will always be for those who have received the gift of faith.
As for those who choose to remain in darkness, we can only continue to ask them again and again, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” in the hope that, one day, finally weary and worn out by the pursuit of empty lives, they will ask us in return, “Who is he, that I, also, may believe in him.”
* In the Byzantine Tradition, major feast days are marked by prefestive and postfestive periods. While there is no corresponding tradition in the West regarding prefestive days, the postfestive period is concomitant with the concept of an octave in the Latin Church, though it's duration is not necessarily eight days depending on the importance of the feast. The last day of the postfestive period is called the "Leave-Taking," Otdanije in Slavonic, actually a verb meaning "to return." The liturgy on the day of Otdanije mirrors that of the feast with minor variations.
** The Latin text of this antiphon is as indicated here in the Roman Missal Third Edition, and is identical to the Introit for this day in the Missal of St. John XXIII; but, the English translation provided in the RM3 seems to have omitted the phrase, “et convéntum fácite” (“and come together”); the translation provided here, therefore, is my own.